SFC Cuts Hurt Quality, Accessibility of Publications

Editorial Board

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At Oberlin, journalism falls largely outside the scope of any department and thus into the hands of student publications. We strive to report on issues that matter, helping students remain informed and empowering them to serve as voices for change within their community. But a recent financial decision endangers all that.

This week, the Review Editorial Board is partnering with the editors of Wilder Voice to call attention to recent policy changes by the Student Finance Committee that threaten student journalism at Oberlin. The Committee’s recent budget cuts not only limit our organizations’ accessibility, but also are the result of the SFC’s willfully ignorant and biased decision-making process.

In what we feel was an arbitrary ruling, the SFC cut the Review’s budget for the 2014–2015 academic year by more than $6,000, subtracting most of that difference from editors’ stipends. Wilder Voice lost its stipends completely, while WOBC board members each lost the equivalent of 20 hours of pay per semester. The SFC has provided various unsatisfactory justifications for this change; more importantly, the Committee has failed to understand the consequences its decision will have on the quality and accessibility of campus publications.

Like other publications at Oberlin, the Review and Wilder Voice have historically provided stipends to their editors. These stipends allow editors to devote as many as 30 hours per week to the publication without having to work other paid jobs to cover their expenses, allowing students from a wider variety of economic backgrounds to apply to these positions. As with any publication, it is important for our staffs to represent a diverse array of student voices in order to accurately reflect the community we represent.

In their limited explanation of the decision to cut stipends for student publications, Committee representatives have said time and again that no student organization needs stipends in order to function. There is partial truth to this statement: No staff member expects to be paid for the full hours they work, and even without stipends, the Review and Wilder Voice could, in all likelihood, continue to function. What the SFC fails to consider, however, is that our publications’ editorial makeup and quality of coverage has the potential to be drastically altered.

Without paying editors for their work, only students in positions of economic privilege would be able to lead the Review and Wilder Voice — those who have the available time and resources to work long hours as volunteers. Conversely, those who must work paid jobs in order to cover college and living costs — namely, lower-income students — would be effectively barred from serving as editors. Especially vulnerable are those students in leadership positions who have put in the time to rise through the editorial ranks and who may be unable to continue in these positions, thus dramatically limiting institutional memory. Our publications’ survival, then, is not our main concern; even if we continued to publish issues, we would do so at the expense of quality, equity and representation.

The SFC’s flawed logic further equates the needs of publications with those of other student organizations. This is inaccurate. Student publications, though they may be chartered organizations, play a unique role on campus and in the wider Oberlin community. Publications like the Review and Wilder Voice are charged not only with informing the public about relevant issues, but also with providing essential forums for intra-community discussion and debate that few other groups can. Furthermore, student publications serve an educational purpose: In the absence of a proper journalism program, jobs at campus publications provide students with opportunities to acquire hands-on training in the field. To this end, one of the greatest responsibilities that editors hold is that of coaching writers through the reporting, drafting and editing processes.

The Review is now in its 140th year of operation as the publication of record for both the College and the city of Oberlin. To strip the Review of the funding it requires to fulfill these informational and educational roles is to compromise a crucial element of public record-keeping, discourse and tradition.

No less troubling than these harmful decisions is the manner in which the SFC reached them. As the principal body charged with managing budgets and allocating resources for all student organizations, the SFC holds significant power and responsibility in governing student life. During the course of the Review’s interactions with the SFC over the past several months, the Committee has repeatedly failed to fulfill these essential obligations.

Amid inadequate and conflicting information, the SFC has confirmed one central factor in its decision to cut stipends: responses to Question 3 on Student Senate’s fall 2013 referendum. The question, worded indiscriminately, asked students whether “[The] Office of the Student Treasurer, Exco (sic) Committee, The Oberlin Review, WOBC, The Grape, Wilder Voice, Bike Co-op, and Pottery Co-op” should “receive stipends from the Student Activity Fund.” We believes it goes without saying that one question without context — especially one which fails to distinguish publications like the Review and the Wilder Voice from organizations like the Pottery Co-op and the ExCo Committee — provides woefully inadequate justification for the sweeping cuts enacted in its wake.

While a member of the SFC conceded to us that the question was indeed biased, this did not stop the Committee from using another question on the same referendum to authorize its own members to bill for their hours. This question, unlike the question regarding student publications, included a full paragraph’s worth of supporting information explaining the logistics of the SFC’s compensation.

This hypocrisy would be less egregious were it not paired with astounding inconsistency during the policy’s rollout. Other organizations included in the same referendum question, including The Grape, did not receive any significant budget cuts. This leads us to believe that the SFC’s supposed plan for a publication-wide budget reduction was simply an arbitrary excuse to cut costs.

The SFC has not publicly provided any basis for its decision to differentiate between publications. Minutes from SFC budgeting meetings, however, provide some insight. Though the Review provided the Committee with position descriptions and budget details in its initial proposal, the Committee apparently disregarded this information and instead discussed the particulars of stipended Review positions based on hearsay. “A friend of mine was Editor-in-Chief for the Review two years ago,” one committee member said in the minutes, “and said he did not work 30 hours a week.” With regard to our layout process, another member said, “I don’t think it’s as time-consuming or labor-intensive as the Review makes it.” Troublingly, the members’ indifference and unfounded personal biases against the Review are evident throughout the meeting minutes. “The quality is so low,” a third member said; “I guess this process is a lot of assuming,” said a fourth. “I honestly think no matter how descriptive the Review is, because we have certain opinions of them, it wouldn’t matter.”

When judging the performance of an organization with obligations as complex as those of the SFC, it’s reasonable to allow for minor shortcomings, so long as they are swiftly addressed and corrected. The Review knows all too well how difficult it can be to remain consistent due to frequent staff turnover. The SFC, however, has proven itself incompetent at communicating its policies and decisions, arguably the Committee’s most important responsibility. Not until the Review had already hired new editors and promised stipends at the end of the 2013–2014 year did the SFC announce these policy changes, effective immediately. Following this, the Committee ignored multiple attempts by the Review over a four-month period to schedule ad hoc meetings until our staff approached them in person.

The Editorial Board does not wish to attack any members of the SFC ad hominem, nor does it seek to initiate a series of back-and-forth arguments across our pages. We also recognize that with this editorial, we may be, in effect, biting the hand that feeds us. At this point, however, we have attempted every other potential avenue of civil communication with the SFC to no avail.

Despite these myriad setbacks, the Review is committed to maintaining the accessibility of its editorial positions, and is fortunate enough to have its own source of revenue to finance this. Through advertising, we believe that we will be able to raise enough money to pay our editors at the level we promised them upon hiring, and we plan to increase our advertising revenue in order to maintain these stipends for as long as possible. But other student publications, including Wilder Voice, do not have this safeguard. What’s more, the current allocation puts the Review in a dangerous financial situation, with no reserve funds to cover unforeseen costs.

The Editorial Board is concerned that the impacts of SFC’s decision will reverberate far beyond this academic year. This policy change represents the first step down a slippery slope, one which jeopardizes the viability and accessibility of all student publications at Oberlin. It also reflects a larger societal tendency to devalue journalism — an attitude which must not inform how publications are funded.

 

This editorial is the responsibility of the Editorial Boards of the Review and Wilder Voice and does not necessarily reflect the views of the staffs of either publication.

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